Veghel, An Old Soldier Remembers
by Roger Morris
I read Roy Aguero’s and Hank “Doc Trip” Ortega’s excellent accounts of Fire Base Veghel and the time following. For some years I kept written notes of names and places, and pictures, but they were all lost in a move in the 70s. Since then I have had only my memories. These two articles brought those memories alive more vividly than anything I have read. Hank Ortega also wrote an excellent account of SSG Gerald Cohen’s death. It was a great tribute to a man that left his mark on all of us. He was my first friend in the platoon and having been there longer freely gave me the benefit of his experience. When he died he had only a month left in country. I can contribute only a little to Ortega’s recollections of the day of his death from my perspective.
We CA’d into the valley at the foot of what was to become Fire Base Veghel and were in contact from the moment we arrived. It was a hot LZ and at least two times over the next few days we received danger close artillery fire. When we called up Redleg to cease fire, we were informed that no supporting fire bases were providing fire in our area. The riddle was solved a few weeks later when we captured three batteries of 85mm howitzers and ammo west of Veghel. The NVA we were up against were not your garden variety Charlie. These were troops that did not intend to be pushed anyplace.
The night of 20 April was peaceful with the exception of the usual mortar fire that did no damage and NVA probing our perimeter. We tried to ignore the mortars and discouraged the ones trying to sneak up on us with an occasional grenade. Our position was assaulted shortly after daylight on the 21st.
Stand to had just ended. We had detected no movement or signs that Charlie was still in the immediate area. Valerian Teel, my machine gunner, always fast with the hot chocolate, brewed up a quick cup on his C4 stove and offered me a drink. Accepting the offer, I did one of those stupid things that people often die from. I left my M16 leaning against my rucksack and walked the ten feet to his position.
Just as he handed me the cup, a B40 whistled past my ear and hit a tree in the middle of the CP, followed by grenades and automatic weapons fire as they assaulted. We both hit the dirt with rounds and grenades hitting all around us as Teel opened up with his machine gun. That ten feet to my M16 might as well have been ten miles. I yelled at Teel to throw me his .45, which he did. If anyone wants to ever feel insignificant I suggest they lay down in the open and shoot a .45 automatic at a bunch of NVA assaulting their position with B40s, RPGs, grenades and automatic weapons. I have seen Doc Ortega and other medics whose primary weapon was a .45 pistol do it as a matter of course. Give me an M16 any day!
After we drove off the attackers, our Platoon moved out to secure the LZ for, I believe a Thai Airborne Battalion that was moving through our area in the opposite direction of Veghel. The LZ was under heavy mortar and machine gun fire and the birds couldn’t land. A helicopter had spotted the location of the mortar and we were to take it out.
We had moved into a bomb crater in an open grassy area near the foot of Veghel and were within about 150 meters of the mortar position. Hank Ortega mentioned that the LT was to the left of the crater with a LAW and was to fire it to signal the attack on the mortar position. We couldn’t clearly see the position as it was in a depression.The LT stayed at the right side of the perimeter to direct supporting fire after we fired the LAW. I took two men (I think Gary Lamb was one of them but after all this time I can’t be sure) and we crawled through the waist high grass, circling to the right so that we wouldn’t be hit by any of our supporting fire. We crawled to within about 30 meters of the enemy position, which was in a creek bed at the base of Veghel.
One of the guys raised up and fired the LAW and we opened up with automatic fire. Immediately, we took machine gun fire from the high ground and NVA came through the grass after us. At the same time, a larger element attacked the platoon on the left flank. They also received machine gun fire from the high ground. The NVA obviously had been sneaking up on the bomb crater and were unaware that we’d gone after the mortar. We were able to suppress the fire of the ones attacking us and evade them although we continued to receive machine gun fire from the high ground, which cut the grass down all around us. We could hear Raymondo Armijo and the others yelling out body count as they fought off the attack. Then we heard some one yelling medic. When we returned to the crater, we discovered that SSG Cohen had been killed. It was a hard blow for all of us. SSG Gerald Cohen was a leader first and always, a very popular man and a good friend to all of us.
Both Ortega and Aguero wrote stirring accounts of the wounded being ambushed on the way to the LZ and again, there is only a little I can add to that. Both accounts are as it happened. Many men lived that day because of Doc Ortega’s bravery and skill. The soldier that Ortega mentioned who had his testicles shot off was a bit older than many of us, he had been to college (which was not that common for enlisted men of the time), had took a break and was drafted. He had a fiancée that he often talked about and we called him professor as he was always there with sound personal advice when someone needed it. I can’t remember his name after all this time but I remember him well. While Doc was working on him he kept begging us not to send him home like that. I’ve never forgotten that and always wondered if he made it and how his life turned out. He was an excellent soldier and an inspiration to everyone.
As we continued to operate from Veghel we lost many good men, wounded and killed. I have recently discovered that some of the men, who I had thought for many years didn’t make it, in fact lived. One of these was Larry Riley who was wounded on 18 May 1968.
Riley was on point the day he was wounded. I was a SSG Acting Platoon Leader and was moving third or fourth in line behind the slack man. We knew there were enemy in the immediate area from that sixth sense that you develop that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Riley signaled by hand that he had heard something and detected movement. I moved forward and we were whispering to each other when the NVA initiated their ambush from well-concealed bunkers no more than twenty feet in front of us. He received a severe head wound, blood and pieces of his scalp hitting me in the face.
As we returned fire, Roberto Campos, my RTO tossed me the handset and I yelled for the Platoon Sergeant to bring the maneuver squad on line to the left. They were actually assaulting almost from the first round fired. We assaulted through and over the enemy into a base camp complex. This whole action from start to finish probably lasted no more than a few minutes. The base camp had been very recently evacuated. The ones that hit us were most likely a delaying force.
Since we were occupied with securing and searching the area, one of the trailing Platoons took over the medivac. Hank Ortega administered first aid to Riley and Sprouse, who was also wounded. I thought Riley was either dead or so near being dead that there was no way he could live. We never heard anything and always thought he hadn’t survived.
When Richard Coyne and Hezakial Shirley were wounded I was within about six feet of a bunker with my RTO when someone threw a grenade. I saw the grenade from the corner of my eye hit a piece of wood on the door of the bunker and bounce out. We both hit the ground as it exploded and because of tree roots around us, which deflected some of the shrapnel, we were uninjured. However Coyne and Shirley received shrapnel wounds. I never found out who threw the grenade. You can read about the unfortunate medivac of these men in Ortega’s excellent account. The sight of the helicopter wench cable parting and these two men falling has stayed with me all these years. It’s hard to believe that they survived. It’s also a tribute to the courage of people like Wiley, Ortega, LT Toberman, the chopper pilots and their crews, and the many others who worked so hard to get them out. Fortunately acts of bravery like this were common place.
I visited the wall in 1993 to pay my respects to those I could remember and all the others listed there, but I couldn’t get past John Ahern’s name. A fine soldier, an outstanding point man and a friend. I have many other friends listed there and one day I will return and complete my visit.